Shame is one of the most universal human experiences. Whether we are young or old, students, teachers, ministry or business leaders, all of us can identify with the sting of failure. For so many pastors and ministry leaders this season of division and loss has brought with it deep feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion. How do we combat the feeling in our souls that we aren’t enough, or that we don’t measure up?
On March 11-12, Steinbach Bible College and its supporting conferences held the annual Leadership Conference, welcoming Ken Shigematsu – Senior Pastor at Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC.
Shigematsu shared that President Rob Reimer gave him an open invitation: “speak on whatever you like, as long as it is a topic you have not spoken on previously at a conference.”
Pastor Shigematsu came with new material from an upcoming book Now I Become Myself: Overcoming Shame and Discovering our True Self. Shigematsu drew from a wide variety of sources including scripture, theologians, poets, psychologists, and stories from his own life, ministry, and unique cultural context. He explored with us the theme of how a deep experience of God’s love, delight, and grace can free us from shame and transform our relationships with God and others.
The first session explored how the abundant grace of God is sufficient to cover our shame. In Genesis, we are reminded that before original sin, Adam and Eve “felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25). Satan – the angel who felt he wasn’t quite enough and reached for more – approaches humankind then and now with the same message: you aren’t enough, you need to be more. As we well know, reaching for more gave us less. Adam and Eve, who once felt no shame, now felt the need to cover themselves with fig leaves. We, too, feel the need to cover ourselves: in work, hobbies, status, ministry, religious structure, and social media. But these are flimsy garments that do not bring fulfillment or freedom.
The question at the heart of this session is “how do we come home to our true self?”. In Genesis 3:21, God, the “nurturing seamstress” in his mercy creates clothes for Adam and Eve. He deals with their shame and foreshadows His ultimate solution to shame, a death on the cross where Jesus bore our shame and freed us. (Hebrews 12:2).
As we find ourselves able to rest in God’s gift of grace – to believe that despite our failures God wants to clothe us in glory and honour – we start to reflect the words of the poem from May Sarton. “Now I become myself. It’s taken time, many years and places; I have been dissolved and shaken, worn other people’s faces…but now I become myself.”
Pastor Shigematsu’s second session – titled Seeing God’s Face in Others – looked at how our deep community can free us from shame. We are profoundly shaped by how people respond to us. Our relationships have great potential for damage and pain, but they are also where shame can be undone.
The author of Hebrews understood this, calling his church to “discover creative ways to encourage others and to motivate them towards acts of compassion…coming together to encourage and urge each other onward.” (10:24-25 TPT). In fact, when we have difficulty hearing from God, or receiving grace or love from Him, our community becomes an essential tool to connect with Him. When people in community with us show us love and support, it helps us to understand how God feels about us.
The fight against shame is an uphill battle, though. Studies have shown how the brain is set up to hold on tighter and more quickly to negative experiences than positive ones. Practices that can help us hold on to the positive are meditation and journaling.
Finally, confession to trusted community is essential to combating shame in our lives. Holding secrets is psychologically and spiritually damaging and bringing it out into the light allows us to deal with it directly and to cultivate healing. Although it can be overwhelming to open up, Shigematsu assured us “in the deepest blackest night of despair, if you can get just one pinhole of light…all of grace rushes in.”
In Pastor Shigematsu’s third session he spoke on how limits can paradoxically bring great liberation in our lives. We tell children “you can be anything if you try hard enough”, but this messaging inevitably sets us up for failure. If we don’t achieve, it must be our own fault. In Marlow’s play, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, a demon tells the main character that the definition of Hell is a place that “has no limits”.
Shigematsu argues that in life, limits actually bring significant freedom. Think of art, poetry, and music which are all bound by clear limits and find their beauty not in spite of, but because of the limitations they are under. We also look to Jesus and see His example of a limited life. Jesus embraced limits, born and raised as a human, limited geographically, hungry, sleepy, tired, and thirsty. As we learn to accept limits and place healthy boundaries in our life, it frees us to reach our true potential, and become our true selves. We gain the courage to say – as spiritual writer Henri Nouwen does – “This is my life, the life that was given to me, and this is the life that I have to live the best that I can.”
In his final session, Shigematsu reflected on the power of beauty to break us out of shame. Shame causes us to curl inward on ourselves, to become self-focused. Beauty, on the other hand, “requires of us to give up our imaginary position at the center” and allows us to step into something larger. All of us have moments in our lives where we experienced awe at beauty. Perhaps a piece of music or artwork, a moment in nature, or even an incredible meal. As we meditate on these moments, we can “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [our] life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and seek him in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4). More than this, as we experience beauty studies have shown that we become kinder, more compassionate, and empathetic. Shigematsu encouraged us to pursue the spiritual discipline of “putting yourself intentionally in the path of beauty every day.” In doing this, we can break the cycle of shame, and grow in empathy to the people around us.
Shame is universal, yes, but we worship a God who has borne not only our sin, but also our shame. A God who graciously covers us with grace and love despite our failures. As we grow in relationship with God, who is in his very nature love; as we connect into a trusted community; as we embrace our limitations and set health boundaries; and as we intentionally open our eyes to the beautiful things around us, we can break out of shame and understand how God sees us. We are His beloved sons and daughters, in whom He is well pleased. Now, we are freed to become our true selves.
Jesse Penner is a student at Steinbach Bible College. He is working towards BA in Christian Studies with a Pastoral focus. He is currently the Lead Pastor at Pleasant Valley Church in Rosenort, MB.
This article was originally published in The Recorder, Vol 59 no. 2